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Don’t shout about poverty – do something about it

A few days ago we were being asked to stand up and shout. In Kenya, we are always shouting about something or other – so no news there. What was different, however, was that this was an organised campaign to get people to express their concerted outrage over a particular issue. That issue? Global poverty.

I refer to the ‘Stand Up, Speak Out’ event organised by the United Nations Millennium Campaign. Millions of people all over the globe were being asked to stand up in unison (briefly, of course – we’re all busy people) on 16 and 17 October and speak out against poverty and for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The added incentive: to break the existing Guinness World Record.

Well, Kenyans joined hands with their international brethren and duly broke the record. 43.7 million people – individuals, families, schoolchildren, corporate employees – from across the globe reportedly stood up and spoke out against poverty this year.

A great achievement, is it not? Humanity uniting in the common pursuit of a noble aim? People of all walks of life linking arms in the name of compassion? All of us returning to our common essence: love, concern and inter-connectedness?

I’m sorry to rain on the parade again, but I find events like this misguided, even dangerous.

But first, let us acknowledge the seriousness of the problem. Global poverty kills 50,000 people every day. It is a colossal waste of human resources and a cruel tragedy. We know this happens every day; every day we turn our eyes away from the problem. In this sense, awakening a realisation in people is clearly necessary.

But here’s the point: it is NOT enough. In the interest of breaking a damned record, many people can be persuaded to do something strange. In the West in particular, marketers have latched onto the spectacular as a way of generating interest in a social issues. Huge rock concerts and dramatic televised appeals are the events of choice. But it gets stranger: when records are involved, women are willing to bare their breasts and men are all-too-ready to engage in juvenile high-jinks. It’s all for a good cause, you see.

But what really happens? People join hands for a good cause, shout or revel or sing or chant or whatever – and then they go home and carry on as normal. How is poverty going to be resolved with so fickle and superficial an exercise?

Who, indeed, are we supposed to be shouting at? At rich governments, apparently. Under duress from similar campaigns two years ago, they made a rash promise to “make poverty history” by doubling foreign aid given to the poorest countries. Now they have conveniently forgotten, and we have to shout to remind them. Poverty is their fault, you see. They have the power to end it, and don’t.

My father-in-law is a thoughtful man whose counsel I always take. I found him very disturbed by last month’s event. It would be better, he told me, if instead of speaking out, people everywhere spent a few minutes thinking deeply.

Those moments of reflection might reveal that poor people are not a different species from the rest of us; they are not a separate part of humanity, to be pitied incessantly. They are the same as the rest of us: they are born with ambitions, hopes, enthusiasms and latent abilities.

What happens to them is that they join the poverty prison because they are unable to develop their own human capital. Some of us receive education, good health and opportunity; others do not. And those who do not often check into the poverty prison for life.

The way to help these people, says dad-in-law, is NOT to feel overwhelming pity for them and to do dramatic, outraged things on their behalf; it is to understand the sources of their poverty and to work – individually and together – to provide some realistic long-term solutions.

Only the poor can end their own poverty. No nation can develop another. Advancement in life comes from personal initiative, determination and application. That does not mean there is no room for organised effort: governments must ensure that all citizens are given a good start in life, and are given tools to use and opportunities to grasp.

But as individuals we should shy away from momentary bouts of feel-good concern, and try to build the capacity of those around us. The poor will cease to be poor if they are given skills, opportunity and succour. Every single one of us can do something meaningful to improve the lives of those around us. But we must not give them handouts and platitudes and sympathy. We must give them time and understanding; we must improve their life chances; we must give them the means to earn their own livelihoods.

40 million shouted on behalf of 800 million for a few minutes. So what? It would be far better for one person to systematically befriend and help just one other person; but to do it with insight and sensitivity.

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